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TIFF: Oscar Peterson: Black + White

Director Barry Avirch’s Oscar Peterson: Black + White is a tribute to the legendary Canadian jazz pianist. The story of Oscar Peterson is told through archival photos, performances and interview footage along with present day interviews with musicians, historians, as well as Peterson’s wife Kelly. Talking heads include Billy Joel, Quincy Jones, Jon Batiste and more.

Avrich refers to the film as a “docuconcert” because throughout jazz musicians perform Peterson’s best known work, including Hymn to Freedom and Orange Colored Sky. The musical arrangements match the trio or quartet structure Peterson played from and the piano used is Peterson’s own. The documentary chronicles Peterson’s rise to fame, his extraordinary skill, his mentorship of other musicians, his devotion to his home country of Canada and personal struggles he faced including failed marriages and racism.

While Avrich’s film is informative it’s also heavily biased. At times the film felt like an advertisement more than a well-rounded documentary. With that said, I really enjoy Avrich’s documentaries, particularly Prosecuting Evil and Blurred Lines. There is so much detail and so much research that goes into his documentaries and it truly shows. The documentary-concert hybrid style adds to the enjoyment of the film.

Oscar Peterson: Black + White had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.